First-year Head Coach Todd Graham stated that there were two main objectives he wanted to accomplish at the end of Arizona State’s 15 sessions of spring practice.
“The big thing that we wanted to focus on is what our identity is,” Graham explained, “and that is establishing that we want to put a team on the field that first and foremost has character, has discipline, that is smart and tough. Obviously we made a lot of progress towards that this spring.
“The second component is getting guys in the right spot and evaluating them. I think it (spring practice) was a great evaluation for us. The reality is that we have a lot of work to do but I do think we’re making great progress.”
When installing a new scheme, it’s only natural for each position group to have a steep learning curve. However, according to Graham one of those units has done an admirable job adapting to all the changes that took place.
“The biggest surprise was the offensive line,” Graham said. “Being an angle flow, pass first team…how would they adapt to more of a downhill, more aggressive running attack? I thought the offensive line was a bright spot. They’re smart, they played very physical and were able to execute. I was very encouraged by their play and how physical they were in the spring.”
Nonetheless, the overall physical conditioning of the team is one aspect that Graham labeled as a disappointment, although considering the circumstances it was a shortcoming that may have ultimately been predictable.
“We have a long way to go to get ourselves in shape mentally and physically,” Graham admitted, “to be able to handle the pace and the tempo which we go at. But that wasn’t a surprise to me, I figured we had a lot of work there because our tempo is so different.
“The physical conditioning, that is something that our strength coach will do a great job getting these guys into the shape that they need to be in. I’ll be honest with you, I will be here a year from now saying the same thing. It takes a couple of years to get in the shape we want to get into to run this system.”
Needless to say that no other spring position battle was more intriguing than the quarterback one. Even though three signal callers virtually got the same number of reps over the 15 practices, Graham stated that this race for the starting quarterback role won’t linger all throughout fall camp.
“Obviously we are lot closer than it appears from the outside,” Graham said of this position battle. “It (spring practice) was a great evaluation for us. To be honest with you, it’s very difficult to rep three guys and I was very impressed that we were able to install the amount of the offense that we did install and do it with three different guys. Each of those guys possesses different qualities and I think we got three really good guys to work with.
“We’ll come in and go a week in (fall camp), then wind up going up to (Camp) Tontozona and when we come out of Camp Tontozona we need to have a starting quarterback. That is our plan.”
A hot button topic during this conference call was the BCS’ four-team playoff system proposal that was publicized earlier this month. Graham weighed in with his opinion on this aspect that could reshape college football starting in 2014.
“If they are going into a playoff (system) it should be eight teams – six (BCS) conference champions and two at-league teams,” Graham said. “But I think the four-team playoff can be positive…just making sure how you’re going to do it? Is it going to be conference champion affiliation? I just hate to see a four-team playoff where you have two teams from the same conference. We’ll have to see how this plays out, but I think it can improve on the system that we have.
“To our players, former players and fans – the Rose Bowl is very important and it’s important that they keep it in place. We’ll see how it turns out. Right now, I just don’t know enough about it (the four-team playoff) to tell you how I feel about it. My thought process was that it made more sense to do eight instead of four.”
Graham added that playing nine conference games, which are more than any other BCS conference, could put the Pac-12 at a possible disadvantage in a four-team playoff.
“That can guarantee everybody in our conference having another loss,” Graham said of that league schedule. “Our scheduling is tough and to get ranked in that top four will be an interesting dynamic.”
Running back Cameron Marshall, was absent for all but the first week of spring practice due to a surgery to repair a bone spur in his ankle. Despite missing a dozen of sessions, Graham still has very high expectations of his senior running back in the 2012 season.
“I think he has the skills, the physical toughness and the ability to be one of the best running backs in the Pac-12,” Graham said. “Our expectation for him is to be a guy that leads this team. The sky is the limit for him. I really like how he fits our system and fits our running game.”
Graham noted that defensive end Junior Onyeali who was suspended due to disciplinary reasons from the Las Vegas Bowl by the former coaching staff, and continued to be suspended under the Sun Devils’ first-year skipper, is making progress towards a possible full reinstatement in time for August’s fall camp.
“He did a great job this spring, he improved on his academics and got a plan of improvement,” Graham commented. “He’s on course, if he takes care of everything, to be reinstated in the fall. He still has work to do and a plan of improvement, do things like community service that he’s working on.
“He’s done nothing, since I've been here, but do everything that we have asked him to do. So we’ve been impressed with him so far. But he still has work to do.”
The course of action Graham has taken with Onyeali, for example, illustrates the staff’s effort to change the culture of the Sun Devil squad. Graham said that instilling discipline is all rooted in establishing coach-player interactions and developing those relationships.
“It’s not about me coming in and being a jerk or anything like that,” Graham explained. “You have to be genuine and that’s what I try to do. We sat down in the first meeting and I had nobody but me and the players in the room. We started talking about values and why our values were important. We talked about team and what that means, talked about what sacrifice means.
“I talked about giving me permission to strain you and have accountability. We improved our class attendance this semester 66 percent. Discipline is self-discipline and they have to be motivated and inspired through a relationship to do that. I think that is one of the things we have made major strides.”